Do You Have Phantom Life Syndrome?

Surely you’ve heard of phantom limb syndrome? You know—the perception of pain or discomfort in a limb that’s no longer there? Apparently 80% of people with amputated appendages report phantom pain, and it goes something like this:

“Oooh, my old tennis elbow is really flaring up today.”

“Yeah but Ralph, you don’t have an elbow anymore. Your arm was amputated in 2015, remember?”

(*Insert awkward silence as Ralph glances where his arm used to be*)

It’s fascinating that we can feel phantom pain, isn’t it? But I’m not interested in missing limbs right now—no disrespect to any amputees—I just want to take this notion of phantom discomfort and apply it to our lives, not just our limbs.

What is Phantom Life Syndrome?

Phantom Life SyndromeIn addition to being something I made up, Phantom Life Syndrome is characterized by feelings of discomfort when we recall the better versions our lives “used to be.”

Examples from real! live! people! at a workshop I recently led:

  • “I used to do yoga on Sunday nights and my body felt so good.”
  • “I used to organize my week and priorities every Monday and I felt so put together.”
  • “I used to listen to audiobooks on my commute and I loved the way it took me into other worlds.”
  • “I used to plan out my vacations a year in advance so I made sure to take the days I was owed.”
  • “I used to knit while watching TV and I loved that feeling of creative accomplishment.”
  • “I used to help out at the library before Covid and I felt like I was a contributing member of my town.”
  • “I used to take my kids out for 1:1 dates and I felt so connected to them as individuals, not just as a family unit.”
  • “I used to make neat recipes and my partner and I loved the flavors and leftovers.”
  • “I used to take on bigger challenges at work and I was learning so much.”
  • “I used to get dressed up for date night and I felt confident and pretty.”

What does Phantom Life Syndrome feel like?

When we recall our better days of old, we tend to feel pangs of regret for the life we let languish (like Ralph feeling his old tennis elbow while his empty shirtsleeve blows in the wind).

We might even judge ourselves for getting a bit lazy in the life department.

We might feel like the best days are behind us and whoa—let me be a champion for your aliveness right here and now, friend, because unless you are in hospice care, IT IS NEVER TOO LATE TO LIVE.

It’s hard to treat an elbow that hurts when the elbow isn’t there anymore, but it’s oh-so-possible to treat a life that’s gotten a little narrow, a little skimpy on vitality and meaning.

So now what?

Pick one memory from your “fully-limbed” life—when your life felt lively, alive, and engaged—and consider if it’s worth it to rekindle that relationship/ revive that activity/ refresh that way of being. Then do it. Restart it.

If it’s not possible/ interesting/ motivating to revisit what used to alive-inate you, then pick one thing that does spark some interest. Then do it. Start it.

One small thing can make a difference. I “used to” work/write on Friday afternoons at a local hotel restaurant here in Palm Springs and I fell off the wagon this summer. I’ve been going back and I feel excited about how it energizes my week. (I’m also excited about their truffle fries with aioli dip.)

Let’s all lament that an astonishing life will not serve itself up to us. We have to give two shits if we don’t want to be haunted by the pain of a phantom life that “used to be worth living.” We have to try at life again and again and again, whether we have all of our limbs or not. And just like that, you will cure yourself of your Phantom Life Syndrome.

Jodi Wellman

P.S.: Have you heard the news that you can now preorder copious copies (okay fine—just one will do) of my upcoming book, You Only Die Once: How to Make It to the End with No Regrets?!

P.P.S.: Let’s connect on Instagram!

P.P.P.S.: Oh and just in case you missed it… I’d love you forever if you took 16 minutes out of your life to watch my TEDx talk!


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